Enlightenment, Romanticism and Sentiment: William Wilberforce, religious conversion and the language of abolition

This is the substance of a paper I gave at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in January 2010. The following works are referred to in the paper:

D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. 28 (1789-91)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: HarperPress, 2009)

John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (1690)

David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning (London: John Murray, 1966)

Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Classics, 2002)

John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable, 1977)

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols (1838)

William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Religious System of Professed Christians…Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797)

William Wilberforce, Letter to the Freeholders of Yorkshire on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807)

William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823)

John Wolffe, Religion, Exploration and Slavery: From Enlightenment to Romanticism (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2004)

The starting-point for this paper is John Pollock’s description of William Wilberforce’s famous conversion experience of 1785, which he describes (p. 37) in essentialist and vertical terms as part of a classic Christian experience of ‘darkness preceding dawn’ that was shared by Augustine, Luther, Cromwell, Pascal, and Bunyan.  One of the reviewers took Pollock to task for this, arguing that Wilberforce’s conversion should be seen horizontally as a classic product of the late eighteenth-century age of sentiment, the age that produced Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768) and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and it is Wilberforce’s alleged relationship with late eighteenth-century sentimentalism that I want to explore here.

In order to do this, it is necessary to revisit David Bebbington’s  well known thesis that the eighteenth-century Evangelical revival ‘represents a sharp discontinuity in the English-speaking world, the transition from the Baroque era to the Enlightenment’ (p. 74) and that the whole movement ‘was permeated by Enlightenment influences’ (p. 57).  This assertion has been taken up by many other historians of Evangelicalism, for example in John Wolffe’s at first sight startlingly counter-intuitive assertion (p. 15)  that John Newton’s hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ ‘was in its way quite as much a product of the Enlightenment as Hume’s ‘Of the immortality of the soul’.  Both  Bebbington and Wolffe associate Evangelicalism  with John Locke’s empiricist philosophy.  As Wolffe notes,

‘Evangelicals were men and women of the Enlightenment to the extent that they perceived themselves as advocates of a coherent alternative religious system founded on tested experience and an integrated view of the world’ (p.18).

In his fourth chapter Bebbington notes that ‘in the years around 1830 there was a change of direction, what he calls ‘a troubling of the waters’ as Evangelicalism came under the influence of Romanticism. Optimistic postmillennialism gave way to a more apocalyptic premillennialism; the moderate Calvinism of most Evangelical Anglicans was superseded by more extreme forms of Calvinism, and there was a turn to biblical literalism and fundamentalism.  By 1833, the year that saw the deaths of Wilberforce and Hannah More, Evangelicalism had been transformed by the new cultural climate of Romanticism. Bebbington defines the marks of this culture as

‘the place of feeling and intuition in human perception, the importance of nature and history for human experience’ (p. 81).

Although Bebbington’s chronology is not a perfect match with Boyd Hilton’s distinction between the ‘moderate’ Evangelicalism of the late Georgian period, and the ‘extreme’ premillennialist Evangelicalism of the younger generation, both agree that a significant change took place in Evangelicalism round about the 1820s, and both locate Wilberforce and his associates in the Clapham sect firmly within the earlier camp of ‘moderate Evangelicals’. And there is much to support this chronology.  Wilberforce’s seminal religious work, the Practical View (1797), presented an argument for Evangelical Christianity based on rational and empirical grounds. His many political campaigns represent Enlightenment optimism rather than the pessimism of a later generation of Evangelicals. His dislike of Calvinism set him at odds with the revived Calvinism of the younger generation. His economic views placed him firmly within Hilton’s ‘moderate’ camp. They reflected the free market ideology of Adam Smith, a stance that lost him votes in his hard-fought campaign during the 1807 election. In spite of support for the Corn Laws in 1815, he believed like Margaret Thatcher that ‘you can’t buck the market’.

My intention in this paper is not therefore to dispute this analysis but to nuance it. First I want to make a slight digression in order to make a broader point. Literary scholars are increasingly reluctant to see the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism in straightforward diachronic terms, a distinction often dictated as much by the conventional university syllabus as by the evidence. The question of the origins of Romanticism is a tricky one. It doesn’t just burst onto the scene with the publication of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in England in 1798 or with the publication of the Schlegel brothers’ Athaneum in Jena in the same year (though these are obviously important landmarks); earlier literary figures such as Thomas Gray and Edward Young have been seen as proto-Romantics at least and by some scholars as full-blown Romantics. And if the cross-over from Enlightenment to Romanticism cannot be seen as following a neat chronological line, can it be right to make such a clear distinction between the generation of Wilberforce and the generation of Edward Irving, between Bebbington’s Enlightenment and Romantic and Hilton’s moderate and extreme Evangelicals?

To some extent the answer is yes. The distinction holds up pretty well for Wilberforce’s friend and older contemporary, Hannah More, with her advocacy of ‘sober’ piety, her love of Augustan poetry, and her aversion to the flowery and high-flown style of Edward Irving. But it doesn’t work nearly so well for Wilberforce. I suggest that both the dates of his life and his own personality mark him out as, above all, a transitional figure: a product of the Enlightenment, yes, but of the late-Enlightenment, the period of what has been called the age of sensibility and the ‘sentimental revolution’.

Boyd Hilton has written (p. 20) that the moderate Evangelicals, among whom he numbers Wilberforce and the rest of the Clapham Sect, ‘were thoroughly “‘dry” as well as “low”’. This certainly seems to be true in the cases of Zachary Macaulay and Henry Thornton, but it does not apply to Wilberforce. Hilton’s thesis pays insufficient regard to differences of temperament. I am suggesting here that, far from being dry and sober Wilberforce’s personality, and hence his spirituality, was peculiarly suited to the transitional culture of the age of sentiment. A study of the great wealth of his unpublished manuscripts soon shows that the dominating aspect of his character was a need for affection, a word that crops up again and again, in the context of friends as well as family. Physically frail and emotionally vulnerable, hating cruelty and unattracted to ‘manly’ pursuits, his private life can be seen as a quest for loving relationships. In that sense he was fortunate to be living at a time when men were permitted – even at times encouraged – to admit to an emotional life.

The reasons for this intense emotional neediness can be found in his childhood and adolescence, a period that coincided with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany. His own Sturm und Drang was personal rather than literary. His father died just before his ninth birthday, and the loss resonated with him though he rarely spoke of it. He grew up in a female household headed by his mother, Elizabeth, forming a close attachment with his only surviving sibling, his sister, Sally. In 1769, the year after his father’s death, he left the family home in Hull and went to live with his uncle and aunt in Wimbledon. John and Hannah Wilberforce were Calvinistic Methodists and when she heard of the influence they were having on her son, an alarmed Mrs Wilberforce brought him back home to de-programme him. The boy was heart-broken and expressed his grief in a series of highly emotional  letters to his aunt and uncle.

The experience left him with a craving for warmth and affection that was to dominate all his subsequent personal relationships and to form his sense of self. His conversion narrative therefore has a context and a background in the sentimental revolution. As will be shown, he was a fierce critic of what he saw as the wrong kind of sentimentalism, but he could not escape its influences.

The relationship of Wilberforce to the culture of sensibility can be explored by looking at two different aspects of his life and writings: his spirituality, and his  use of the language of sentiment as a rhetorical strategy to promote the abolition of the slave trade.

During and immediately after his famous conversion experience of 1785-6, Wilberforce constantly grappled with the problem of religious emotion. Strive as he might, he found it difficult to maintain the consistency of religious fervour that would have given him lasting spiritual comfort. And this mattered to him deeply. Many Christian traditions put their emphasis on the objective reality of deeds rather than the subjectivity of feelings and acknowledge that the holiest of believers can suffer years of spiritual desolation, a dark night of the soul in which God seems absent. (This seems to have been true of Mother Teresa.) Though at times Wilberforce came close to acknowledging the unreliability of emotions on the whole he accepted John Wesley’s view that feelings were a reliable indication of spiritual health. This can be seen as quasi-Romantic, but it is also rooted in Enlightenment empiricism (showing again the inadequacy of a simple binary division). In his enormously influential Essay on Human Understanding (1690) John Locke had written:

‘Iconceive that Ideas in the Understanding, are coeval with Sensation; which is such an Impression or Motion, made in some part of the Body, as makes it be taken notice of in the Understanding.’ (p. 44).

Knowledge was built up from the accumulation of sensory perceptions, and according to a number of influential Evangelical writers and preachers of the eighteenth century, the progress of the soul was similarly measured by the strength and permanence of religious impressions. William Grimshaw, rector of Haworth, wrote in 1749:

‘All this [Christians] experience and feel in the Heart, not daring (as counting it the most shameful Enthusiasm and the grossest Presumption) to call themselves Christians before they clearly feel these Things in them. But so soon as they feel this, then they are sure, but not before this, that they are Christians.’  (An Answer to a Sermon lately preached against the Methodists (1749), pp. 28-9; quoted Hindmarsh, 90.)

Wilberforce wrestled with this problem in June 1786, a couple of months after the apparent resolution of his spiritual struggles, when, after some heart-searching he took communion because ‘I thought it right not to suffer myself to be determined by my momentary feelings’.  Yet he felt uneasy about his action because ‘I do not think I have a sufficiently strong conviction of sin’. He wanted ‘evidence’ that God had called him ‘from darkness to light’, but because he ‘wandered dreadfully at church’ this evidence was lacking: and without it he would never know true peace. (Life, vol 1. 117) In later life he claimed to have reached some sort of resolution, and he was never to suffer a repetition of the spiritual agonies he endured in his late twenties; but the outward serenity of his middle and old age continued to mask periods of insecurity and self-doubt.

It is possible to argue, of course, that Wilberforce’s minute examination of the state of his soul belongs as much to an older Puritan tradition of introspection as to the culture of sensibility. But to make this argument is to ignore the  influence of  Locke’s empiricism and the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, which stressed the importance of emotion and feeling.

Wilberforce’s reading of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work written in the year of his birth (1759), provided him both with a rationale for his spirituality and some of the rhetorical strategies for his abolitionist campaign. In contrast to the Stoics, who argued that rationality must always prevail over emotion, Smith drew on his predecessors in the Scottish Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, in locating ‘sentiment’ – feeling – as the basis for moral judgement. He took their argument a stage further by linking feeling to the imagination.  This sympathy was universal,

‘by no means confined to the virtuous and humane.…The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it’.

Smith described ‘pity or compassion’ as

the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. … By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them (Part 1, Section 1).

Quoting Smith in his seminal religious work, his Practical View Wilberforce stated that

The circumstances by which the affections of the mind are generated and strengthened may be easily collected. The chief of these appear to be, whatever tends to give a distinct and lively impression of the object, by setting before us its minute parts, and by often drawing towards it the thoughts and affections, so as to invest it by degrees with a confirmed ascendancy: whatever tends to excite and to keep in exercise a lively interest in its behalf: in other words; full knowledge, distinct and frequent mental entertainment, and pathetic contemplation (p. 77).

Smith’s doctrine also provides a very clear context for Wilberforce’s great abolitionist speech of 12 May 1789 in which he dwelt on the horrors of the Middle Passage:

I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room, is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived. … I verily …believe, if the wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African Merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it. Let any one imagine to himself 6 or 700 of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? (Parliamentary History, col. 45)

Wilberforce is not here asking his listeners to imagine themselves as the slaves but as the spectator, suffering himself at the sight of the misery of others. His debt to Smith is even more apparent in The Times report of his abolitionist speech of 18 February 1796:

‘he put in a strong point of view by supposing [the barbarities necessarily connected with the slave trade] to be judged of by an unconcerned spectator’.

Both of these quotations are an explicit reference to another way in which Smith developed Hutcheson’s and Hume’s doctrine of sympathy.  In order to make a moral judgement, it is necessary to imagine oneself as an impartial spectator contemplating and assessing the actions of the agent. The impartial spectator is the conscience.

Wilberforce was not the only abolitionist to employ the language of sentiment in order to attack the slave trade. Indeed, it may be one of the reasons why they eventually succeeded, although after twenty years; their propaganda struck a chord with a public well attuned to the language of sentiment and sympathy. This comes out clearly in a work that Wilberforce studied closely, following its publication in 1799 Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa. In one passage Park describes the touching reuniting of a blacksmith with his blind aged mother after a long absence:

‘From this interview I was fully convinced that whatever difference there is between the Negro and the European in the conformation of the nose and the colour of the skin, here is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature (p. 74).

In reply to the implied question, What makes us human? Park replies that it is the capacity for sympathy and it is this common capacity for sympathy that demonstrates the unity of the human race.

To give another example from Mungo Park: On one occasion during his travels, hungry, drenched by heavy rain, he was taken by some kind-hearted women into their hut. He describes the song they sang about him as they spun their cotton.

‘The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under his tree. He has no mother to bring him milk, no wife to grind his corn’ (p. 182).

Park found this ‘affecting in the highest degree’. So did his readers, including the duchess of Devonshire, who composed a sentimental ballad about the incident.

Given this cultural climate, it would have been very remiss of the abolitionists not to make explicit use of the language of sentiment, and this Wilberforce did though he never allowed this language to dominate his argument.In 1807, on the eve of the great parliamentary session that was to see the abolition of the slave trade, he wrote his Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Addressed to the Freeholders of Yorkshire. In it he frequently used Smith’s word, sympathy, which he described as ‘the great author and cherisher of every benevolent emotion’ (p. 132).  Again he evoked the idea of the spectator

‘beholding a numerous body of our unfortunate fellow creatures in captivity and exile, exposed naked to public view, and sold like a herd of cattle’ (p. 134).

In a lengthy and highly-charged passage he followed Smith’s assertion that we can judge the feelings of another by what our own would be in his circumstances: ‘estimate from your own feelings what must be his, in all the various situations through which he passes’ (p. 341). It is a failure of the imagination that has allowed the slave trade to continue:

‘I firmly believe that, could many of our opponents see with their own eyes but a slight sample of the miseries the Slave Trade occasions, they would themselves be eager for its termination. But, alas, Africa and its miseries are out of slight. (p. 346).

And herein, as he had come to believe, lay the problem with sentimentalism – it could be selective in its compassion and close its eyes to real in favour of imagined suffering.

Sentimentalism had been falling out of fashion since the 1790s when it became associated with moral laxity. Conservative moralists were quick to condemn its manifestations when seen for example in the new German drama or in William Godwin’s posthumous biography of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. In the debates of 1796 Wilberforce assured the house that if he had taken up the abolitionist cause ‘lightly or from any temporary feelings of sensibility, it might be expected that he would abandon it.’ (Times, 19 Feb 1796)  In his Practical View published in the following year he poured scorn on the refinement of feeling that owed more to ‘the school of Rousseau’ than ‘the school of Christ’ and that consequently led its possessors to ‘shrink from the labours of active benevolence’ (p. 283). A few years later he was identifying sensibility with what we could call compassion fatigue.

The first problem with sensibility therefore, was that it be a transient and unreliable phenomenon, sentimental in the modern sense of the word. The second problem was that it could be misplaced. This point is illustrated by a striking passage in his speech of 1789, which seems to have been misinterpreted by some of the parliamentary reporters.  There are many ambiguities attached to this speech, chiefly because of the unreliability of parliamentary reporting in the period. In the version of his speech printed by the abolitionist and government-funded Morning Star, the impartial spectator comes to resemble the reader of the fashionable novel of sensibility: ‘To hear a recital of these facts would make people shudder; and the tear of sympathy would communicate from one man to another with congenial celerity.’  This reads more like a paraphrase than Wilberforce’s own style and illustrates his frequent complaint that his parliamentary speeches were misreported.

According to the fullest report, Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, much of the first part of the speech consists of anecdotes designed to shock the hearers into a recognition of the cruelties of the trade. It then proceeds to statistics – inevitably dry but essential to his case – about the slave populations in the Caribbean and the percentages of those who perish on the Middle Passage or who die on shore. At the turn of the argument is an ambiguous narrative. The apologists for the slave trade had argued that the Africans show their enjoyment of their condition by singing and dancing, whereas, says Wilberforce they

‘are forced to dance by the terror of the lash, and sometimes by the actual use of it…As to their singing, what shall we say when we are told that their songs are songs of lamentation upon their departure which, while they sing, are always in tears, insomuch that one captain (more humane I should conceive him, therefore, than the rest) threatened one of the woman with a flogging, because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings.’ Parliamentary History, col. 47

Because we cannot hear the tone of Wilberforce’s voice, it is impossible to be certain how the narrative of the captain should be interpreted: is he to be praised or despised for his sensitive soul?  The Morning Star reported it without any ironical overtones, but it is likely that he was inviting his hearers to feel contempt rather than approbation for the captain, who is merely self-indulgent, the butt of Wilberforce’s irony rather than his qualified praise.

By 1807 Wilberforce had largely abandoned irony – always an uncertain rhetorical tool – for a straightforward analysis of the perils of misplaced sensibility. Why was it that, after twenty years of campaigning, the slave trade was still operative? The reason seemed clear:

‘to the West Indian Slave…his colour, his features, his form, his language, his employment, all tend …to extinguish sympathy’ (p. 131).… Far from helping the cause ‘sympathy…operates against us. For we are readily led to sympathise with a great West India Proprietor; but not with a miserable negro Slave’ (p. 346).

Sentimentalism was therefore shallow, slow to recognise the claims of Christian charity or the existence of a common humanity. The impartial spectator was not always impartial. It is for this reason, I think that in his final abolitionist work, The Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves (1823) that Wilberforce abandons the language of sentiment and concentrates instead on two particular arguments that can be seen as the summation of the Christian Enlightenment: the unity and equality of the human race; and the certainty of divine judgement if the government does not move to abolish slavery within the British Empire.

But though he modified his rhetorical strategies, Wilberforce’s spirituality remained rooted in the need to acquire the right feelings. It is because of this that he never fully understood  his second son, Robert. Robert loved his father but he was frequently unable to respond to his emotional demands, not because he was the cold fish some observers believed, but because he could not wear his heart on his sleeve. He was at home with the calm and unobtrusive sensibility of John Keble’s Christian Year and he welcomed the Tractarian Doctrine of Reserve as an antidote to the over-emotionalism he associated with his father’s religion. Historians, notably David Newsome, have analysed the reasons why none of the Wilberforce sons accepted their father’s Evangelicalism. One reason is the fact that they came to distrust a religion whose language was so tied up with what they saw as extreme manifestations of sensibility, that ended up vulgarising doctrines they thought should be treated with reverence and reserve.

To summarize: In his fine analysis of Wilberforce’s speech of 1789 Brycchan Carey has noted that, ‘it is not clear whether [Wilberforce] was a critic of sensibility, or quite the reverse, a fully developed sentimental writer’. The answer is that he was both. He was the almost exact contemporary of that other transitional figure, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose complex relationship with the Enlightenment  (a combination of severe rationalism and sentimentalism) has often been noted.  He was one of the patrons of Humphry Davy, who, as Richard Holmes has shown, brought a romantic sensibility to the study of chemistry. In this he resembled two other intermediary figures:  Jane Austen’s favourite poet, William Cowper, who as John Wolffe has noted (p. 40) combined a belief in an essentially orderly universe with an intense love of nature and a strong perception of a self that experienced ‘a sentimental, even passionate, sense’ of his relationship to God; and John Newton whose poetics represent, according to Bruce Hindmarsh ‘a transitional phase in the integration of religion and culture between Augustan and Romantic conceptions of beauty and taste’ (2001, p. 287).  Wilberforce was both a figure of the late Enlightenment and a proto-Romantic, a product of the culture of sensibility, though, as we have seen, his relationship with this culture was often ambivalent.

To state that Wilberforce was a man of his own times is to state the obvious. What else could he have been? Yet some people fit more easily into their zeitgeist than others, and Wilberforce’s temperament, theology and life experiences harmonized perfectly with the late eighteenth-century culture of sensibility. Even when he relinquished the more obvious manifestations of the language of sensibility, he was always the Man of Feeling, and it was his emphasis on the importance of the capacity to feel that provided much of the rhetoric for his humanitarian campaigns and profoundly influenced his spirituality.


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